How Viola Davis Improved Her Running Skills for Her Role In 'The Woman King,' According to Her Trainer

Plus, watch a clip of the actress sprinting on a treadmill.

Viola Davis
Photo: Getty Images

Viola Davis went through intense training to prepare for her role as Nanisca in The Woman King. Her character is the general of the Agojie, an all-female unit of warriors that protected the African Kingdom of Dahomey in the 1800s. The physically demanding role required months of preparation, including running-specific training, which Davis just shared a peek at on her Instagram.

Davis recently posted a few clips of herself running on the treadmill. The videos show her running progressively faster, and it's seriously impressive to watch. "I did that!" writes Davis in the caption of her post, shouting out her trainer, Gabriela Mclain, who helped her transform into warrior shape for the film.

"Viola was always a runner," Mclain tells Shape. However, there were a few key areas that she needed to work on in order to play an Agojie warrior: her technique and her sprinting abilities.

"She was really stiff in her upper body," says Mclain, noting that Davis' character would have been accustomed to running for days at a time (literally) to travel to a battlefield. In that case, "The body is going to protect itself and going to go to the best [running] technique, so it can actually last that long," she explains. Therefore, it was important for Davis' running to look "natural" and "smooth" on screen.

To do this, Davis started her training off the treadmill, focusing on the movement her arms would need to do in order to run efficiently. Mclain would have her stand still with light weights in her hands, pumping her arms back and forth as she would while running to separate the upper body from the lower body.

Then Davis would run slowly on the treadmill while maintaining her upper body technique, using exaggerated movements. "Once we figured that out, we started using more speed," says Mclain.

Interval training was the next progression in their work together. Davis would jog for about 30 minutes on the treadmill, then Mclain would increase her speed to up to 10 miles per hour for 10 to 20 seconds, followed by 30 seconds at a jogging speed to recover before it was time to sprint again.

Running training involved other exercises off the treadmill, such as single-leg push-ups, step-ups, and agility ladder drills. Mclain also incorporated banded sprints into Davis' workouts, where the actress would sprint with a resistance band around her waist, requiring her to push against the pressure to move her body forward.

Mclain prioritized injury prevention throughout Davis' training, she says. "I would not do anything if I wasn't sure that she'd be capable of doing that [with safe, proper form]." This was especially important, as Davis injured her knee about eight months before training began. However, you wouldn't know it based on how smooth her technique looks in the clips she recently shared.

If you're feeling inspired by Davis' running transformation, Mclain has advice for newbie runners. "You have to start slowly," she says, highlighting the importance of strength training and stretching for runners. "The joint needs to be protected by the muscle, so strength training is super important," she explains, adding that the core specifically must be strong in order to support the rest of the body while running. "People either choose [running or strength training], but I feel like the combination of both is the magic." (Next up: This Running Warm-Up Will Prime Your Body for Your Next Workout)

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